The stage is all set to welcome the new President Ram Nath Kovind to the Rashtrapati Bhawan on Tuesday after his resounding victory over the opposition nominee, Meira Kumar. However, it is also time to give a warm send-off to Pranab Mukherjee, perhaps the only Head of State who could have made a competent Prime Minister as well. During his nearly 50-year-long association with Indian Parliament, PranabDa performed varied duties, but the only position that eluded him was the prestigious office of the Prime Minister, even though the initials of his name and the august office are identical.
Being an astute and perceptive follower of politics and current affairs, Pranab was able to anticipate in 2010 itself, that he would have to carve out his own place in history as the Congress party to which he belonged would never permit him to ascend further than where he was at that point of time—a significant member of the Manmohan Singh led UPA government. In an interview to Priya Sahgal, then with the India Today, he took everyone by surprise when he stated that he would not be a part of a government led by Rahul Gandhi.
The majority of people in the political class thought that since P. Chidambaram appeared to be the preferred choice of Sonia Gandhi for key positions in the Cabinet, PranabDa had made the decision to withdraw from public life and thus had opted out from any future government. However, intricately interpreting the comments and observations made by him in the interview, it was evident that Pranab was either convinced that the Congress was not returning to power, and so there was no question of Rahul Gandhi becoming Prime Minister, or he had already made up his mind to throw his hat in the ring for the Presidentship of the Republic.
The Congress high command was unwilling to give him his due and Sonia Gandhi took the decision to promote Vice-President Hamid Ansari to the top post. It was at this stage in 2012 that Pranab stupefied his opponents and supporters by emerging as the candidate for the President’s post. Sonia Gandhi was dumbfounded, but could do nothing other than extending him her support and also declaring him as the official nominee of the party. A seasoned politician, Pranab Mukherjee had won this particular battle. He not only became the 13th President, but also carved out a place for himself as being a constitutionally correct people’s Head of State, who threw open the gates of Rashtrapati Bhawan for the common man and facilitated in restoring its prestige and majestic aura.
It was not astonishing that Pranab had within the party outwitted his rivals since he had the distinction of being groomed by the late Indira Gandhi, whom, till this date, he continues to admire immensely. He was also a favourite of the late Sanjay Gandhi, who in fact, put him on the fast-track by convincing his mother in the mid-1970s to name him as a minister of state, with independent charge of revenue and banking after bi-furcating the Finance Ministry. Pranab had his ups and downs and despite an electoral setback in the 1980 Lok Sabha polls in West Bengal, he was appointed a Cabinet minister during Indira Gandhi’s fresh tenure as the Prime Minister.
It was due to his comprehensive understanding of issues that Indira Gandhi virtually chose him as her number two in the Cabinet, which was packed with stalwarts such as R. Venkataraman, P.V. Narasimha Rao, Giani Zail Singh, P.C. Sethi and Narayan Dutt Tiwari, among others.
Pranab became a victim of circumstances following Indira’s horrific assassination and fell out of favour with her son, Rajiv, who succeeded her. He moved away from the Congress to form his own party and waited for better days, which returned in the early 1990s. After that there was no looking back. An interesting anecdote in the book by Indira’s former political adviser, Makhan Lal Fotedar recounts how after the fall of the V.P. Singh government in November 1990, the then President, R. Venkataraman was oddly reluctant to administer the oath of office to Rajiv Gandhi. However, Venkataraman informed Fotedar that if Pranab was elected as the leader, he would, that very evening, swear him in.
After the formation of the UPA government, of which Pranab was a pivotal as well as the most consummate player, an attempt by his supporters was made to get him re-designated as the Deputy Prime Minister. The proposal was gaining momentum, but Sonia Gandhi shot it down while answering a query posed to Dr Manmohan Singh by me during a press conference in 2006 at the Nainital Conclave of senior Congress leaders. She had apparently figured that if Pranab would be elevated, Manmohan Singh’s relevance would be diluted in the same manner as L.K. Advani’s positioning as the Deputy PM had affected Atal Behari Vajpayee’s supremacy while the NDA was in power.
Pranab would be settling down in New Delhi which has been his home for a long time. He is certainly not the kind who would remain inactive and spend the rest of his years in retirement. He still has much to offer and his words of wisdom would be reflected in his writings, speeches and actions after he lays down the supreme office. Pranab Mukherjee would go down in history, as a promising Prime Minister India never had. Between us.